2012 Renault Fluence ZE electric car, powered by Better Place in Israel [photo: Brian of London]Enlarge Photo
After five weeks driving a Better Place electric car in Israel, I'm gaining a deeper insight into the company's plans.
The Better Place annual subscription model, including service and support, costs more than the U.S. practice of buying an electric car outright and charging it at home.
How customers feel about this subscription payment rests on how good the extra service is.
Looking back on the entire process of evaluating and buying the car, it is difficult for me to fault Better Place on customer service.
I've never come across a car company that followed up and wanted to hear from me after I drove the new car off the lot, unless I was about to spend money on servicing.
Better Place seems to be completely different.
Pain and suffering
To call that unusual in Israel would be a huge understatement. What usually passes for "customer service" here is an experience roughly like trying to cancel a cell-phone contract with an operator in another country while having dental work done.
Any Israeli will recognize those stories, and chime in with far more. Which brings us to Better Place.
Cutaway of Renault Fluence ZE electric car used by Better Place, with battery pack behind rear seatEnlarge Photo
My first contact with the company was a well-rehearsed show at their visitor center, on a rainy January evening after work hours. It certainly didn't feel like a sales pitch--and perhaps it was more powerful for that.
Looking for the right customers
Following a comprehensive test drive on public roads, the next step was for Better Place to qualify me. How many miles do I routinely drive per day? Do I drive a fixed route? How many miles do I drive per year? Do I have my own, dedicated off-road parking spot?
Better Place is not interested in selling cars to customers who don't fit these requirements. In talking with them multiple times, I also came to understand how battery switching is not viewed as a regular way to add power to the car.
From the company's point of view, its very best customers will be high-mileage drivers who commute 60 to 80 miles each way between two fixed sites where Better Place can install a charging station (at both ends). High-mileage traveling salesmen with no fixed route, for example, are not ideal.
Inspections at home and work
Standard Better Place home charging stationEnlarge Photo
Once a customer is qualified, and decides to go forward with the contract, he or she pays a $500 (₪2,000) refundable deposit. This results in an inspection at the customer's home, and for higher-mileage drivers, the workplace as well.
For me, the communication with Better Place was faultless throughout this process. Calls were returned on time; email was used when requested; direct cell-phone numbers were given if needed.
And quite a lot of communication was needed.
Persuading the committee
In urban Israel, the majority of people live in multiple dwellings, either owning or renting. Buildings all have committee of residents and owners who deal with communal issues. This committee has to give permission for the installation of a charging point--meaning there are many steps to installing each charging station.
Better Place aims to install a completely separate connection to the Israeli Electricity Company (IEC): only Better Place will receive the electricity bill for a car.
In practice, however, the IEC is a slow and cumbersome bureaucracy. In my case, it was unable to supply a new connection and meter quickly enough. In the intervening period, Better Place has promised to refund to the building--via me--an amount of money that will cover the car's charging.